When I wrote my last article on open source at Oracle, I got some feedback. Much of it was along the lines are “Have you hit your head on something hard recently?” or “You must be living in an alternate dimension.” While the obvious answer to both is “perhaps…” it has become increasingly obvious that Oracle is trying very hard to be one of the cool open source kids. They have spent money, both in for product development and acquisition, to build up their open source portfolio. This is what I saw front and center at Oracle OpenWorld.
When many IT professionals think about Oracle, they think about their flagship enterprise database. That’s fair since Oracle is still the clear leader in industrial strength databases. They are continuing to evolve the database platform with the Autonomous Database. Oracle is also well known for their enterprise applications especially ERP and CRM. The Oracle technology and product portfolio, however, is large and extends much further than the database and enterprise application categories. The cloud has given Oracle the opportunity to extend even further into emerging technology such as serverless or blockchain. It was also an opportunity to adopt open source technology across the board.
Open source, for example, is clearly on the minds of Oracle executives. Larry Ellison himself talked briefly about open source in his keynote. That’s a tectonic shift for Oracle. It can no longer be said that it is just a few people inside the company giving lip service to it. Oracle Cloud has embraced Docker containers with the Oracle Container Engine, and Kubernetes with the Oracle Kubernetes Engine. What was remarkable was that they are deploying unforked versions of these technologies. By deploying unforked i.e. standard versions of container images and Kubernetes, Oracle is demonstrating that they are not trying to turn these technologies into proprietary Oracle software that cannot be migrated to other cloud services or platforms. Instead, they are betting that large enterprise customers will want to run containers on the Oracle Cloud platform, which emphasizes security and reliability. In addition, they also believe that customers will want more automation to make enterprise cloud infrastructure easier to manage. These are Oracle’s strengths and are well suited to enterprise customers with complex applications.
Oracle is also heavily vested in important open source projects. One such project, Fn, is a project to develop serverless technology that can be deployed on-premises and in the cloud. What is remarkable is that they began this as an open source project before commercialization. This differs from some other Oracle open source projects, such as OpenJDK, which first came out of a commercial product, the Oracle Java VM. Fn is also the basis for Oracle Functions, Oracle’s serverless offering. Even here, they are taking an open approach by using the standard, unforked Fn so that Fn functions are not locked into the Oracle Cloud platform. Again, Oracle believes that customers will eventually decide on Oracle Functions because of the reliability and security of their cloud but they aren’t forcing customers into it.
OpenJDK is arguably the one of most strategic open source projects that Oracle is involved in. It is the project that is developing the next generations of the Java language and platform. Oracle has a commercial version of the VM but it is differentiated through service and support not additional features. The IT community has a right to be a bit leery of the true openness of OpenJDK, especially given Oracle’s history with the platform, but their approach is strictly open source. Some of the upcoming OpenJDK features currently in the pipeline are designed to make Java a more competitive language while still maintaining the concurrency and typesafe features that have made Java the language of choice for secure, performance-oriented enterprise applications. Project Amber, for example, is trying to reduce the amount of code a developer has to type by inferring more from the code itself. The reduction in the ceremonials alone will make Java a more efficient and modern language. Project Loom, on the other hand, is building out a lightweight concurrency system for those instances where Threads are too resource intensive and OS level concurrency isn’t necessary.
More than Oracle’s products and contributions to projects, it is clear that the attitudes within the company have changed. Speaking with Oracle executives about open source sounds more like talking to Google or Red Hat. They are not losing the focus on automation, reliability, and security, which is why large enterprises do business with Oracle. They are, instead, trying to make open source fit the enterprise better. This, for Oracle, is the path to success.
As someone who has been in the IT industry a long time, I know that we can be tribal and chauvinistic about companies. Sins of the past and impressions from years ago form our opinions about what companies offer. Thirty years ago, Oracle and Microsoft were the cool kids on the block and IBM was my father’s IT provider. Unfortunately, we miss out on opportunities when we divide companies into the old and the new. It’s time to consider that a company such as Oracle could change and might have embraced the open source movement.
This originally debuted on the Amalgam Insights blog.
An unfortunate side effect of being an industry analyst is that it is easy to become jaded. There is a tendency to fall back into stereotypes about technology and companies. Add to this nearly 35 years in computer technology and it would surprise no one to hear an analyst say, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” Some companies elicit this reaction more than others. Older tech companies with roots in the 80’s or earlier tend to get in a rut and focus on incremental change (so as not to annoy their established customer base) instead of the exciting new trends. This makes it hard to be impressed by them.
Oracle is one of those companies. It has a reputation for being behind the market (cloud anyone?) and as proprietary as can be. Oracle has also had a difficult time with developers. The controversy over Java APIs (which is really a big company spat with Google) hasn’t helped that relationship. There are still hard feelings left over from the acquisition of Sun Microsystems (a computer geek favorite) and MySQL that have left many innovative developers looking anywhere but Big Red. Oracle’s advocacy of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) has been at best indifferent. When the FOSS community comes together, one expects to see Red Hat, Google, and even Microsoft and IBM but never Oracle.
Which is why my recent conversation with Bob Quillin of Oracle came as a complete surprise. It was like a bucket of cold water on a hot day, both shocking and at the same time, refreshing.
Now, it’s important to get some context right up front. Bob came to Oracle via an acquisition, StackEngine. So, he and his team’s DNA is more FOSS than Big Red. And, like an infusion of new DNA, the StackEngine crew has succeeded in changing Oracle on some level. They have launched the Oracle Kubernetes and Registry Services which brings a Container Engine, Kubernetes, and a Docker V2 compatible registry to the Oracle Cloud Service. That’s a lot of open source for Oracle.
In addition, Bob talked about how they were helping Oracle customers to move to a Cloud Native strategy. Cloud Native almost always means embracing FOSS since so many components are FOSS. Add to the mixture a move into serverless with Fn. Fn is also an open source project (Apache 2.0 licensed) but one that originated in Oracle. That’s not to say there aren’t other Oracle open source projects (Graal for example) but they aren’t at the very edge of computing like Fn. In this part of the FOSS world Oracle is leading not following. Oracle even plans to have a presence at Kubecon+CloudNativeCon 2018 in Seattle this December, an open source-oriented conference run by The Linux Foundation, where they will be a Platinum Sponsor. In the past this would be almost inconceivable.
The big question is how will this affect the rest of Oracle? Will this be a side project for Oracle or will they rewrite the Oracle DNA in the same way that Microsoft has done? Can they find that balance between the legacy business, which is based on high-priced, proprietary software – the software that is paying the bills right now – and community run, open source world that is shaping the future of IT? Only time will tell but there will be a big payoff to IT if it happens. Say what you will about Oracle, they know how to do enterprise software. Security, performance, and operating at scale are Oracle’s strengths. They are a big reason their customers keep buying from them instead of an open source startup or even AWS. An infusion of that type of knowledge into the FOSS community would help to overcome many of the downsides that IT experiences when trying to implement open source software in large enterprise production environments.
Was I surprised? To say the least. I’ve never had a conversation like this with Oracle. Am I hopeful? A bit. There are forces within companies like Oracle that can crush an initiative like this. As the market continues to shift in the direction of microservices, containers, and open source in general, Oracle risks becoming too out of step with the current generation of developers. Even if FOSS doesn’t directly move the needle on Oracle revenue, it can have a profound effect on how Oracle is viewed by the developer community. If the attitude of people like Bob Quillin becomes persuasive, then younger developers may start to see Oracle as more than just their father’s software company. In my opinion, the future of Oracle may depend on that change in perception.